The limits of Europe, part II

(If you haven’t read part I, it might be a good idea to do so first.)

The stand-off between Russia and the west that began last year in the aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution still shows no sign of ending. In the most recent developments, Russia is outraged at the seizure of its assets in Belgium and France to satisfy an arbitration judgement over the bankruptcy of the Yukos oil company. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin, excluded from the G7 (formerly G8) summit, is holding his own “vanity” forum in St Petersburg, attended by such worn luminaries as Tony Blair.

It’s all a far cry from the time after the end of the Soviet Union, when leaders talked of a common European home stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. Arrogance and short-sightedness on both sides has pushed that vision well into the background – to the extent that when it occasionally appears in public view, as it did with a speech by David Cameron two years ago, it’s framed as anti-Russian rather than inclusive.

Yet the basic geopolitical facts that underlay the original optimism have not changed. Russia, more so than Turkey, is primarily a European country; although it extends thousands of kilometres into Asia, its heartland, with most of its population and economic strength, is European through and through. Whether or not it can one day be incorporated in the European Union, close and workable relations with the rest of Europe are a necessity for both sides.

But more about Russia in a moment. For now I want to look at the other side of the continent, where the islands and peninsulas of north-western Europe also have an equivocal relationship with their neighbors.

We noted the case of Iceland last time; it’s sufficiently far out that it’s not surprising that EU membership would be a difficult topic. But even in the rest of Scandinavia it’s far from straightforward. Denmark has been a member since 1973, but, as Wikipedia puts it, the Danes “have enjoyed a reputation as ‘reluctant’ Europeans.” Sweden didn’t join until 1995 and keeps evading its commitment to adopt the Euro, and Norway remains outside, its voters having twice rejected membership by referendum.

Yesterday’s election in Denmark has put the centre-right back in power with the Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party in a pivotal position. So it’s likely that the new government will be a strong critic of many EU policies and institutions, prone to take the side of those aiming to unwind some EU powers in treaty negotiations.

Which brings us to the biggest of the north-western countries, the United Kingdom, and the one whose relationship with the EU is potentially the most troubling.

Unlike Russia, Britain does not straddle a continental boundary; for all of the discourse that uses “British” and “European” as mutually exclusive terms, there is no doubt that Britain is geographically European. Yet in other ways its position closely resembles Russia. Its overseas commitments (notably its close relationship with the United States) and memories of past empire pull it away from Europe in much the way of Russia’s Asian lands, and it has the same sort of equivocal history.

The great English historian AJP Taylor never tired of advocating an Anglo-Russian alliance, saying that it was the most naturally peaceful combination since each power’s interests in Europe were fundamentally defensive: neither aimed at European conquest, but only asked to be left alone.

Taylor glossed over some inconvenient facts, but nonetheless he had a valid point. Spain, France and Germany have all at times aimed at continental domination and built (with varying success) European empires. Britain and Russia, however, turned most of their imperial energies elsewhere. The issues that are matters of life and death in central Europe are of peripheral concern in London or Moscow – only when one continental power becomes dominant do they start to take an interest.

As this week’s bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo reminds us, that interest can then be very powerful. Britain helped reshape Europe in 1815, as did Russia even more decisively in 1945. But in both cases there’s something of a deus ex machina, an occasional external influence rather than a fully-grounded participant in the European drama.

Even those who support a close European involvement for Russia (Timothy Garton Ash comes to mind as an example) often balk at the idea of actual EU membership: it seems just too big and too different. Instead they suggest some sort of close partnership or association, very much along the lines that Britain’s Eurosceptics are advocating. Perhaps as Russia moves closer, Britain will move further away, until a kind of equilibrium is reached.

For Cameron, the Danish result is good news: he will have an ally in pushing for a redrawing of EU arrangements that might allow him to face down his Eurosceptic wing and successfully argue for continued membership in the referendum that he has promised before the end of 2017. But serving the twin aims of keeping his party together and keeping Britain in the EU is still not going to be easy. Nor, if it comes to the crunch, is it entirely clear which one Cameron will prioritise.


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